Michael Kaufman’s “Am I My Body’s Keeper?” is an important lifesaving book. He states that the Bible tells people to exercise and do other acts to assure their health. God did not create humans to sit and deteriorate.
The book is easy to read. It focuses on the Jewish view toward taking care of our bodies, but the information and ideas in the book are valuable for people of all religions. Kaufman quotes the sage Chafetz Chaim (1839-1933) who wrote “The entire Torah is dependent upon the mitzvah [requirement] of taking care of your body.” He reminds readers that Judaism’s greatest thinker, Maimonides (1138-1204), who was a philosopher, codifier, and physician, who among his many books wrote ten books on medicine, stressed repeatedly that one must care for one’s body with how one eats, sleeps, and exercises. Maimonides criticized the behavior of some pious people. He wrote, “One should not neglect physical exercise of the body, as do people of learning who diligently study the entire day and night.” He also wrote, “one is obligated [by God] to refrain from things that impair the body and to adapt those elements which strengthen it.” Also, “Elderly people [in particular] require their bodies to move because their bodies require warmth. No older person should rest without having done some exercise.” Dr. Kenneth Cooper wrote similarly in the twentieth century, “We grow old because we stop exercising.” Kaufman is just past his mid-80s. He used to run and now walks vigorously and jogs lightly. He gave up vigorous jogging when he reached 79.
Kaufman calls exercise “the amazing miracle drug” and tells us that getting fit helps us be not only healthier, but also smarter and happier. Researchers in Denmark working with 200 Alzheimer’s patients found that exercise improved memory. Among a wealth of information, he states that even “a modest fitness program of moderate intensity can turn your life around.” He discusses the various kinds and benefits of different exercises, how to lose weight and keep it off, and how to stay fit after 50. He writes that smokers are three times as likely to die before the age of 60 as are non-smokers, and reminds us that the World Health Organization estimated that tobacco caused 100 million deaths in the twentieth century. He also speaks about the benefits of bathing. He quotes the first century sage Hillel who told his students that bathing is a mitzvah [a divine command].” Between 1348 and 1349, unsanitary conditions and the failure to bathe resulted in the Black Death that killed 75-200 million people in Eurasia, but hardly effected Jews who kept clean. Most non-Jews did not wash – ever. Queen Victoria had no bath in her castle. Queen Elizabeth shocked her nation when she revealed that she bathed once a month “whether I needed it or not.”
Michael Kaufman is certainly right. Not only the Bible, even the US Army recognized the need for exercise. When I was on army active duty as a colonel and later as a general and stationed at the Pentagon, we were encouraged to exercise each day. I ran six miles every day at work, for an hour. I went out to run when I reached a difficult problem and, remarkably, when I came back from the run, without thinking about the problem during the run, without exception, I knew the solution to the problem.